Saturday, August 18, 2018

In Defense of Discern Realities

I posted this essay on G+ back in 2016. At the time, there was a lot of talk and swirl on the Dungeon World Tavern about whether Discern Realities was a good move, and when it triggered, and how to use it. This was my response.  I'm re-posting it here to make it easier to find, and as (hopefully) the beginning of a series of posts on using Discern Realities. I've added some formatting and cleaned up a few typos, but it's otherwise unchanged from the original. 

I love the move. It's one of favorite things about DW. It's not perfect, and it occasionally grinds gears. But it consistently moves my games forward in ways that I'd never anticipate otherwise.

When does Discern Realities trigger?

In the previous thread, there was a lot of back and forth about when you should or shouldn't trigger Discern Realities. The trigger in the move (closely study a situation or person) is pretty wide open; I can see where the confusion comes from.

In play, I rarely find there to be any confusion. It triggers when I ask a player what they do, and they describe doing something with the intent of gaining more information.

  • "I'll toss the room, looking for valuables."
  • "I'm gonna take a closer look at that wall."
  • "I'm staying just outside the clearing, looking the hovel up and down."
  • "I keep my hand near my sword, but size these guys up."
  • "I peer out into the darkness, looking for threats."
  • "I try to calm down, take it all in, figure out what's going on."
  • "I'll wander about the area, looking for tracks or spoor or other sign of big game."

I can hear the objections: "But XYZ isn't a situation!"

Of course it's a situation. Didn't you just make a GM move?  And ask them what they do?  This is Dungeon World. Think Dangerous and fill their lives with adventure. Something bad is almost always right around the corner.

Now, sometimes you'll ask them what they do, and they won't tell you.  They'll ask you a question instead. That in and of itself is probably not Discern Realities. That's them asking you to do your job (How to GM > Describe the situation, Make moves)
GM:  "You enter the room. There's a rumpled, musty bed in the corner, a dusty old bookshelf, a frayed tapestry on the wall showing, um... like a forest with a castle in the background and like a few dudes on horseback in the foreground.  There's no door but the one you came in. What do you do?"  (Notice I didn't really make a move there.) 
Wizard:  "What's on the bookshelf?" (Not Discern Realities; just asking something that should be apparent.) 
GM: "There's probably a dozen old tomes on the top shelves, and some brickabrack on the bottom shelves. You can't really see them well from the doorway, especially not in torchlight. You get closer?"  (Tell them the requirements & ask) 
Wizard:  "Yeah, sure. I step in and peer at the books, what do I see?" 
GM: "Ooh, yeah, now that you're closer you can see that a few of them are definitely tomes of magic! But as the torchlight flickers, you see a... shifting? shimmering? Like there's some sort of almost unseen field between you and those books.  What do you do?"  (Offer riches at a price) 
Wizard: "Huh. Like a forcefield or something?" 
GM:  "Could be. It's just this vague shimmering in the air. Like a heat shimmer, but not as intense. You barely saw it."  (No GM move. Just clarifying what the player already perceived.) 
Wizard:  "Okay, I'll slowly move the torch around, trying the find the edges of that ripple." 
GM:  "Ah!  Sounds like you're studying the situation closely! Discern Realities!"

But Why Do the Questions Have to Come From the List?

Yeah, it's partly a holdover from Apocalypse World. And it's definitely the most jarring part of the move. For example, in my moving-the-torch-around-to-find-the-edges example, the player might be like "dude, I just want to find the edges... that's not one of the questions!"

But here's the part that's brilliant: the questions force them to ask something meaningful.  Something that will propel the situation forward into action or deeper into context.  If you just answer the question "where is the edge of the shimmering effect," you're just encouraging pixel bashing.  Seriously. What happens next? Nothing about that answer will propel the situation forward.

The Discern Realities questions? They almost always will propel the situation. (Even "What happened here recently?" will likely add information that deepens the overall scene. "Nothing," you might say, "the way the dust has built up, not just on the bookshelf but on the floor and the bed... no one's been here for years." That's way more interesting and meaningful than "6-inches from the top center book.")

Another reason the questions are great: they force the player to prioritize. What are they looking for, really?  Are they more concerned about threats ("What should I be on the lookout for?") or opportunities ("What here is useful or valuable to me?") or deception ("What here isn't what it appears?") or or or.  The move forces them to pick.

(By the way, if it really bugs you or them, try this: let them ask more-or-less any question they want, but answer one the questions from the Discern Realities list--whichever one is the closest match. Can't tell which one is the closest match? Ask them questions about what they're hoping to find, or about how they do it, until you know.)

On a 10+, the questions make them think more broadly. They got what they were most interested in, but now... what else might they glean from the situation? This is where I find the most fun happens.
Wizard: "Um, first question... I guess, what is about to happen? I'm trying to figure out what this field does." 
GM: "Okay, cool. You find the edges of the shimmering field, about 6 inches from the books, yeah.  And as you carefully move the torch closer, the field almost starts to... solidify? No, more like... tense.  You're pretty sure it's about to lash out with some arcane force if you get any closer. Next question?"   
Wizard: "Huh. Okay... um, what is useful or valuable to me?" 
GM:  "Well, the books, obviously. But... well, yeah. You keep moving the torch around carefully, and you notice two things.  First, the field actually seems to be emanating from just one of the books. Out in, like, a sphere from that one.  It covers all the others, but, it's centered on one of them.  Also, you noticed that the field isn't triggered from the flame, just from the physical part of the torch itself.  Looks like energy can pass through it, but matter can't. Last question?" 
Wizard:  "Oh, hmmm... who's really in control here?" 
GM:  <pause>  "Huh, let me think about that for a sec....  Oh! You guys are! This place... the dust, the musty smell, the cobwebs in the corners... no ones been in this room for months, maybe even years.  Yeah, there's some sort of weird protective field around these books, but there's no sign that anyone's gonna be coming back for them anytime soon." 

Finally (and this is important to remember): sometimes the answer is a negative. "Who's in control here?"  "No one. It's a damn free for all."  "What isn't what it seems?"  "Nothing. This lady has been totally honest with you." "What should I be on the look out for?" "Not much. This place looks pretty safe."

Yeah, those answers might be kinda boring, but they are super valuable answers. Players can make informed decisions with those answers. They're great.

But the Move Takes Us Out of the Fiction!

Maybe? But it doesn't take you out of the conversation. You're still talking about what's happening in the game, aren't you?

Obviously, this is a personal taste thing, but: I find "immersion" to be somewhat overrated. I don't want to lose track of the fiction, but I don't mind having a conversation about what the fiction entails.

Nonetheless, I try to couch my answers in terms of what the characters actually perceive, and what they infer from that. That helps keep the move grounded in the fiction, a lot.

(Related: they often get better, more immediately useful answers if they discern realities up close and personal than if they just study a situation from afar.)

Another trick: I try to always answer their last question by either making a GM move and/or by switching focus to another PC. That way, the questions and answers blend nicely back into the normal flow of play.
e.g. " one's gonna be coming back here anytime soon. Hey, thief, while the wizard's been waving the torch around, what have you been up to? That chest at the foot of the bed seems to be padlocked shut, though the lock has gotten all rusty. What do you do?" (present a challenge that fits a class's skills).

"Isn't the +1 Forward Hard to Track?"

Yup, sure is.

It's particularly hard to remember because:

  1. it doesn't always trigger (someone has to act on the answers)
  2. if it does trigger, it might not matter. Any given +1 bonus only matters on 1 in 4 rolls (i.e. results of 6 or 9, after modifiers).
However, the +1 forward does give the GM's answers mechanical weight. If you Discern Realities ask the GM "what here is useful to me?" and get an answer like "um, your sword?" you might have been like "duh."  But you get a +1 to hack and slash (or defend, or whatever) if you can act on that information--and it's a pretty easy thing to act on!

And if you forget about the +1 forward?  The questions from the Discern Realities list will still be propelling the game, so it's no huge loss. That +1 probably (3 in 4 times) wouldn't have mattered anyway.
Editorial note: in my personal games, I've switched over to using Advantage and Disadvantage instead of +/- X modifiers.  'Vantage means roll an extra die and drop the lowest/highest. So for Discern Realities, the rule is "gain advantage on your next move that acts on the answers."  In a face-to-face game, you can represent that by having the player add an extra d6 to their usual "dice pile."  They might not actually get to use it, but they at least have it there as a reminder.  

In Summary

Discern Realities triggers when a PC takes action in order to get more information.

If the player is just asking you questions about what they see/hear/feel/know, and it's stuff that would be obvious, just provide the details. If what they want to know wouldn't be immediately apparent, tell them that and ask them how'd they'd learn it... and that will almost always trigger Discern Realities.

The questions are great because they force the players to ask questions that provide depth, texture, and momentum. They force the player to pick what's actually important to them. The extra questions on a 10+ prompt us (the players and the GM) to think about the situation more deeply than we would have otherwise.

The move can definitely "pull you out of the fiction," but I don't think that's a bad thing. And you can use your answers to put everyone back in the fiction.

Yeah, the +1 forward is easy to lose track of, but think of it as gravy. It's not the main dish, but it adds a little something-something when you put it on top.

Obviously, this is all just my opinions and experiences!  Your experiences might be very different than mine.  But I find Discern Realities to be one of the main drivers of my games.

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